House of Fools

[Dom durakov]

Russia/France, Persona and Hatchette Première et Cie, 2002, 
Color, 104 minutes
In Russian and Chechen with English subtitles
Director: Andrei Konchalovskii
Screenplay: Andrei Konchalovskii
Producer: Valerii Belotserkovskii and Andrei Konchalovskii
Camera: Sergei Kozlov
Music: Eduard Artem'ev
With: Iuliia Vysotskaia, Sultan Islamov, Stanislav Varkki, Marina Politseimako, Vladas Bogdanas, Rasmi Dzhabrailov, Elena Fomina, Evgenii Mironov, Bryan Adams
Awards: Grand Prix Award and UNICEF Cinema Recognition Award at the 2002 Venice International Film Festival; Honorable Mention at the 2002 Bergen International Film Festival (Norway); Zolotoi Vitiaz' Award at the 2003 12th International Zolotoi Vitiaz' International Film Festival (Russia). The film was selected by the Russian Oscar Committee as Russia's entry for the 2003 Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Set in a psychiatric hospital during the Chechen conflict in the war-torn republic of Ingushetia, Andrei Konchalovskii's House of Fools offers the familiar metaphor of madhouse as societal microcosm. As Chechen and Russian troops take turns occupying the mental institution, the film follows the more stable inmates' attempts to preserve order in the power vacuum created by the absence of their good-natured doctor, who goes off in search of buses to evacuate them. Between scenes that depict the absurdities of war, the film revolves around a pair of unlikely relationships: the first is between Zhanna, an endearing female patient, and Akhmed, a Chechen soldier who proposes to her in jest; the second relationship emerges out of Zhanna's romantic fantasies in which she believes she is engaged to Canadian pop-star Bryan Adams. As the film progresses, it finds a balance between the pervading war, the music video-like interludes of Adams, and the disorder that threatens to erupt out of the insanity of the hospital and ongoing conflict.

In contrast to the outside world, the hospital remains a place of humanity and kindness even as shells burst through the institution's walls. Throughout the chaos, the patients demonstrate such an ability to care for each other that, in comparison with the soldiers' cruelty towards one another, the old question inevitably arises concerning who in the madhouse is insane. The comic relief provided by the inmates relies on the stock nature of the characters: the dwarf, the effeminate Goga, the trouble-maker Makhmud, Vika the diehard communist, and Zhanna's sex-crazed roommate, Lucia. Nonetheless, the plot coheres in a compelling way around Zhanna, played by Iuliia Vysotskaia, Konchalovskii's wife. As she naively leaves the institution to marry Akhmed, she returns the film to the realia of war when she enters the Chechens' camp. These elements are as internal and important to the film's spirit as the stereotyped characters are. The film is a nightmare that does not horrify but rather affects the viewer with the ironies of war. In place of outright depictions, the film offers only visions of war. Likewise, madness is not exclusive to the community of patients, but rather it is a relative condition that grows out of the film's more ironic moments. While negotiating the sum to be paid for a dead soldier's body, a Russian and a Chechen commander discover that they served together in Afghanistan. Their camaraderie, however, is shattered by an exchange of fire accidentally triggered by a Russian soldier. Akhmed's search for asylum among the mental patients at the film's conclusion suggests that the insanity of the institution is preferable to the madness of the world just outside the hospital.

According to Konchalovskii, House of Fools was inspired by a news report about an actual mental institution located in Chechnya that was overrun by Russian and Chechen soldiers. Into this story Konchalovskii injects the balm of music and love. Zhanna's accordion playing and Adams's cameo appearances compensate for the dreary walls of the hospital. The switch from low-color to high-color shot exposures when the musical interludes begin suggests a sharp directorial dynamism that ultimately sustains the illusion that a war is raging outside the institution's walls.

Tim Schlak

 


Andrei Konchalovskii

A well-known director and screenwriter, Andrei Konchalovskii was born in 1937 in Moscow. The child of Natal'ia Konchalovskaia, who was a poet and author of the book Our Ancient Capital, and Sergei Mikhalkov, a famous children's poet, Konchalovskii is also the older brother of director Nikita Mikhalkov and the father of the director Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii. After studying in several Moscow music conservatories, Konchalovskii began studying at the the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in Moscow. In the 1960s, together with Andrei Tarkovskii, he wrote the screenplays for The Steamroller and the Violin, Ivan's Childhood, and later, Andrei Rublev. Over the course of his forty-year career, he has directed numerous films that have gone on to become classics of Russian and world cinematography, such as The Story of Asia Kliachina, Uncle Vania, Siberiade, and The Inner Circle.


Filmography

1961 The Boy and the Pigeon
1965 The First Teacher
1967 The Story of Asia Kliachina
1969 A Nest of Gentry
1970 Uncle Vania
1974 Romance for Lovers
1979 Siberiade
1982 Split Cherry Tree
1983 Maria's Lovers
1985 Runaway Train
1986 Duet for One
1987 Shy People
1989 Homer and Eddy
1989 Tango and Cash
1992 The Inner Circle
1994 Riaba My Chicken
1996 Lumière and Company
1997 The Odyssey
2002 House of Fools
2005 The Lion in Winter

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